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Non-Review Review: The Impossible

The Impossible looks and sounds fantastic. It is very well put together by J.A. Bayona. Cleverly opting to use practical effects wherever possible, and shooting on a gigantic water tank, Bayona provides a visceral experience worthy of any blockbuster disaster movie. Indeed, were The Impossible based on fictitious events, it might be enough to make it a powerful and emotional film. Unfortunately, as the film is so desperate to let you know (placing “true story” captions at the beginning and the end of the movie), The Impossible is based on the true story of a tsunami that caused untold damage to Thailand displacing up to 60,000 residents.

Without spoiling anything, The Impossible ends with the shot of a plane crossing the ocean, a voyage home. There’s no real sense of any of the lasting consequences of the truly horrific disaster that befell the countries in the Indian Ocean.

It's a washout...

It’s a washout…

I try not to be cynical when it comes to films. I like to think the best, and I like to assume goodwill. However, it’s hard not to be skeptical of The Impossible which tries to reduce a catastrophic tale of human suffering to the trials of a middle-to-upper-class white family on holiday. The film tries to defend itself by clinging to the label of “true story”, as if the fact that this happened excuses it from any criticism. There were a lot of “true stories” of human endurance on those tough days, so chosing one featuring a bunch of Westerns seems more than a little calculated.

Despite Naomi Watts’ repeated assertions that 50% of the people who died in Thailand were tourists, it betrays a decidedly disingenuous way of looking at things. Across all the nations affected, the death toll was primarily Asian, with only 149 British tourists lost. Even the film’s “true story” seems a bit calculated and manipulative. This is the story of María Belón, who so significantly contributed to the crafting of the film that she earned a “story” credit. It suggests more than just “inspired by”, and she’s gone on record about just how little was changed between real life and the screen.

Muddying the water a bit...

Muddying the water a bit…

Except, of course, that she and her husband are Spanish. Neither Naomi Watts nor Ewan McGregor, nor the characters they play, are Spanish. Instead, they are an English couple. There is absolutely no reason to change the nationality of the lead characters, at least none relevant to the narrative. While both Watts and McGregor are respected actors, neither is a marquee name. It is quite clear that the decision to “reimagine” the leads as two English characters was one motivated primarily by market research.

It seems that Summit likely suspected that international audiences are more likely to pay to see American or Northern European people deal with horrible situations than to watch Asian (or even hispanic) characters deal with the same problems. And maybe they’re right. After all, the number of white actors and actresses who can headline a film internationally far outweighs those of any other ethnicity. There are exceptions, of course, but the numbers seem heavily weighted.

Riding the wave...

Riding the wave…

Sadly, I suspect that the decision to alter the true story to feature two white characters was probably the safest business decision the company could have made. After all, we live in a world where a Liberace biopic is “too gay” to receive a $5m budget from a major studio and I Love You Phillip Morris languished in pre-release hell for far too long. I know this is the movie business, and this wouldn’t be as big a deal if Bayona had constructed some fictional disaster to base the movie around, but there’s something decidedly cynical about all this – and it makes it hard to engage with what the script tries to convince us is the story of a human triumph.

Indeed, it seems that if our leads can survive long enough they will be taken away from Thailand. The tsunami will obviously have a lasting psychological impact on those who survive, but our leads will still have a life waiting for them when they return. Their home wasn’t destroyed, their jobs weren’t wiped out, their surviving family won’t starve because nobody will buy fish that may have eaten the flesh of the victims. Their ordeal has been horrible, but the film tries to give us closure to an event far more complex and more nuanced than a simple tale of getting out of Thailand.

Watts the deal, here?

Watts the deal, here?

Thai people exist at the edge of The Impossible. They are mostly there to be helpful and compassionate and well-meaning, even if none of them seem to have any characterisation beyond a simple plot function. They’re also on hand to misplace the odd relative amid all the understandable confusion. Whenever the film needs a dramatic shot in the arm, you can be sure that somebody is about to get separated from somebody else due some well-meaning bureaucratic error on the part of local authorities.

The fact that this is based on a true story makes several elements ill-judged. To be fair, the level of foreshadowing seen in The Impossible might seem a bit clunky in a story of a fictional disaster, but it seems in poor taste here. As one of the kids prepares to raid the fridge, his mother warns him, “If you have to have something… have some water.” A child curls up in bed with his mother asking if they can look at the stars. She responds, “Tomorrow.” It is, of course, Christmas night. The movie opens with a plane going through turbulence, as if teasing the audience.

Water logged...

Water logged…

Bayona is a superb director of suspense, as demonstrated by The Orphanage, but his skill feels strangely out of place here. There’s a sequence towards the end that fells like something out of a romantic comedy, as various characters keep missing one another, and catching fleeting glimpses. It’s handled remarkably well from a technical standpoint, and would work well in any other film, but here it seem a bit trite. After all that, it simply takes a cliché from a romantic comedy to make pretty much everything better?

Again, I might sound like I’m being a bit harsh. Bayona is a great director, and his talent and technique are evident. McGregor and Watts are as reliable as ever, and the film is well put together from a production standpoint. The water scenes are visceral and aggressive, and shocking, but the whole thing just seems so micro-managed and so shrewdly calculated and so cleverly manipulative that’s it’s very hard to care about any of these things.

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7 Responses

  1. You know I love your writing, but I have to point out that people from Spain are Caucasian. I was curious why they’d change the nationality of the characters, but the race is still the same. I suspect that it’s easier to sell English names (actors and characters) than Spanish ones.

  2. I had a similar unease about the leading character in Argo – played by Ben Affleck – being based on a Mexican-American agent but not played as this explicitly by Affleck. Whether Caucasian or not, Spanish and Mexican stories being transposed to very fair actors on film is probably about the star appeal of the actors available? Or just that Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz weren’t available? I still think you are making a valid point.

  3. They released the video for the initial wave and that’s all I’d be interested to see 😀

  4. Mainly, I’m agree with your review. Some months ago, when the first images were released, I felt very disappointed with this film. I don’t understand why the “real story” which may make us squeeze or something else, is the story of a family of tourist. Thousands of local people died and the survivors lost their families, their jobs, their lands… a tourist could return to his/her homeland and still have family and friends who support him/her, a house, health services, job… they still live in a developed place. Although they suffered the tragedy too, they were able to scape the nightmare. Local people weren’t. They lost more, and they keep chained to the nigthmare. So I don’t understand why the story of the tourist must touch my heart, when I see a background so much painful.
    And, in other hand, I really don’t like the decision of changing the nationalities. I am Spanish, and in this country, when a director become famous, try to scape and do something more American and less Spanish. Not in style, in mean he change the nationalities of characters, but not only this, but also actors, workers, budget… everything comes from overseas. It seems than these directors are ashamed of being Spanish. They only come here to Spain to recieve prizes. I really though when I see The Orphanage (film which I trully love) that Bayona wouldn’t do something like this. I’m not blaming on him. Money is money, I understand. But, in opposition of many criticts from this country, I couldn’t say that this film is Spanish. Nothing here is Spanish. Even we’re not so commercial to put our “exotic” names in a film, I see…

    • Thanks Cristina. I agree with a lot of that.

      That said, I think perhaps “ashamed” is too strong a word. After all, various Irish performers and directors don’t carry their intrinsic “Irishness” in their international work. There’s a good chance people watching the Oscars don’t know Daniel Day-Lewis is Irish. I wonder if those watching Nolan’s Batman know that Cillian Murphy is Irish, for example. Directors like Neil Jordan or even John Boorman have worked on American films that don’t seem distinctly Irish. I don’t consider them to be less Irish for it.

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